Brick Wahl Looks Back: No Recess

December 30, 2011

The irrepressible Brick Wahl wraps up 2011 with a glance in the rear view mirror at 1991.

By Brick Wahl

Just saw that it’s been 20 years since Nirvana’s Nevermind came out. Great record. Too bad it wrecked everything. Ya see, there was this underground scene before that, hopelessly uncommercial, a global thing of all these crazy little bands struggling along from gig to gig, record to record, party to party, and it was a blast and innocent and all our own and no one paid attention to us. That was the 80′s scene…amazing shows every weekend, almost every night, all these brilliant bands. It was all about creativity and attitude. It was glorious.

Kurt Cobain

Then Nirvana broke big, bigger than big. They broke huge, enormous, they turned our entire world upside down and suddenly there was money everywhere and it was so fucked. The music got duller and duller and safer and safer, all the clubs and labels and tours got taken over by business. Things just got safer and safer. Predictable. Boring. All that underground music (the labels called it “alternative” and now “indie”) just disappeared.

I lost interest. Started buying jazz records. Now look at me. I’ve become distinguished, despite myself.

Nevermind was a good record, that’s for sure. But Kurt knew what he had done. Hence the shotgun. On my birthday, no less.

That was my 37th. My 40th was a total manic blow out at Al’s Bar. Absolute craziness. Like the last gasp of my punk rock life. It went out in style, though:

* * * * *

 Fearless Leader had spent an hour putting on make-up and diapers full of chili and creamed corn and chocolate pudding and when they hit the stage the packed house was in a frenzy but they had what seemed like the worst drummer in LA and were so incredibly awful it was hysterical, Sarge’s amp all fucked up going on and off and on and off irregularly, the drummer beating away ametrically in the background, insults flying. As the band started the second song Sarge was in a fury packing up, a guy in a diaper and clown make-up, in the middle of the stage putting his guitar away in its case. Finally I sat in on drums and things tightened up somewhat but this only seemed to work up the audience even more and the food starting flying thick and fast and within seconds a large slice of birthday cake slammed into my arm and slid off slowly and grotesquely. (Bob Lee later took credit for that–”It was your birthday” he explained…)

Then came more cake, beer, cups — meanwhile the contents of the various diapers came loose and poured all over the stage and the three clowns before me were sliding and falling about, Sarge — guitarless now — screamed into two mikes and began to slither across the stage like an evil serpent and bit the others on the leg. Basically it was punk as fuck — raunchy and rockin’ and fierce and funny and stoopid and scary with maximum audience participation.

Finally — I looked up, trying to concentrate on these songs I had not played in a decade (if at all) and there was Alien Rock butt naked (well not completely — I’m told that he was wearing a rubber) and I started laughing so hard I couldn’t play and just sat there being pelted as they ranted and slid and danced and screamed and oozed and then I got back under control and launched into the toon again (it was their drawn out classic “Sunshine Superstar” with the classic chant “Peace / Love / War / Hate” and the chorus “it’s the way you are (x4) you’re a super star (x2) you’re a sunshine superstar, Baby”) and it ended in a huge finale when suddenly Alien Rock, nude and covered with slime and crud threw his skinny nekkid body into the drums and the kit flew apart all over me and the stage.

* * * * *

 That was my send off to the pre-Nevermind era, I guess. Though I didn’t realize it at the time. That was the end of anarchy for me. It’s such an orderly world now.  I hate it.

Fuck you, Kurt Cobain the dead guy. I liked you way better as  a live guy. No hagiography. Just a fucked up punk wondering what the hell happened. Well, it’s your fault. You wrote the goddamn song. That goddamn great song. “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Did anyone even get that? No. They just got that killer riff. A whole industry was built on that riff. People started selling out in droves. Kurt Cobain the live guy sure noticed. I’ve seen you on your hands and knees, unable to walk. It was awful and sad and so punk rock. The real punk rock. I saw that fight too, in the movie. You braining some security asshole with your guitar, then that big stage melee. I loved that. Anarchy.

But  now you’re dead, and all business. 100% business. How many Neverminds shifted at Christmas? A zillion? You don’t know? Maybe they aren’t keeping Kurt Cobain the dead guy in the loop on these things. Oh well. It’s all business now. You can’t even be a millionaire punk rock junkie anymore. No time for heroin in today’s rock ’n’ roll. Not anymore. It’s business all the time.  Career 24/7. Work work work. No recess, dead guy. No recess.


Jazz With An Accent: Catching up; Upcoming Releases; A New Jazz Label

December 29, 2011

By Fernando Gonzalez

 Closing 2011 with a glance back, a peek into the future and sincere gratitude to the artists and producers who keep creating and pushing forward, no matter how daunting the odds. Your work is an inspiration. Thank you all, let’s meet again in 2012.

 Catching up:

 Poncho Sanchez and Terence Blanchard

Chano y Dizzy!  (Concord)

A tribute to Cuban conguero  Chano Pozo and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, by conguero Poncho Sanchez and trumpeter Terence Blanchard.  The program  includes both standards (“Tin Tin Deo,” “ Manteca” and “Guachi Guaro” addressed in a medley; Dizzy’s “Con Alma” and “Groovin’ High;” Ernesto Lecuona’s “Siboney” ) as well as originals by Blanchard and band members Ron Blake and Francisco Torres. For lovers of the classic Afro-Cuban jazz sound.

 * * * * *

 Upcoming releases:

Paolo Fresu & Omar Sosa Featuring Jaques Morelenbaum

Alma (Otá)

The disc is a reunion of sorts for Cuban pianist Omar Sosa with trumpeter Paolo Fresu (who appeared as a guest in Sosa’s group for the live recording Promise, in 2007) and, on four of the 12 tracks, cellist, arranger and producer Jaques Morelenbaum (who played, arranged and conducted on Sosa’s Ceremony). In Alma, Sosa and Fresu very effectively blend acoustic instruments with electronics, creating a sound at once intimate and open- ended, earthy and ethereal. Sosa’s pan-African approach mix naturally with Fresu’s Mediterranean sensibilities. (He’s from the isle of Sardinia, Italy) The set comprises original compositions by Sosa and Fresu and an imaginative reading of Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies.” The release date is January 10.

 Tord Gustavsen Quartet

The Well (ECM)

Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen’s music has a muted lyricism and soulful, gospel tinge that suggests a darker hued version of Jarrett’s European quartet. Tenor saxophonist Tore Brunborg provides the robust tone and melodicism, just as Gustavsen’s approach is decidedly more austere, of the school of less-is-more. The Well is smart, soberly elegant, emotionally controlled, and well played. If this sounds like another fine example of ECM’s sound, you’ve been paying attention. The U.S. released date is February 7.

* * * * *

A new jazz label. Now that’s an idea …

Perhaps because jazz has such a precarious standing in American cultural life, I’m always moved by the depth of passion and dedication this music elicits in fans around the world. Listening to and discussing jazz in Buenos Aires or Madrid, for example, often has been an illuminating experience for me. The knowledge and enthusiasm of friends and colleagues in our discussions never fails to send me back to my music and my books both humbled and refreshed. Distance from the source plays its tricks, but it also gives a certain perspective — on artists or values in the music — that perhaps we have come to take for granted.

That said, I was surprised when I found out recently that a friend in Buenos Aires was starting a jazz label. Really. Are you serious? Now?

“How do you make a million dollars with jazz?,” the old joke goes. “Start with two million.”

And in case you are in the 1% and live blissfully unaware of what’s happening out there, there’s also a calamitous situation of the world economy in general and the record industry in particular. Still, Justo LoPrete, criminal law attorney, record collector and passionate jazz enthusiast, recently released the first batch of discs on his own label, Rivorecords. This week he’s going to the studio to record the next set.

“I’ve been wanting to do something related to promoting jazz for a long time,” wrote LoPrete via email in response to my questions. “Recording was an option. And that would also allow me to take special care with the art and the packaging. The present, and probably the future, of the recording industry was not a concern. And no, the financial debacle hadn’t really started when we took on this project. But at any rate, this was not strictly taken as a business enterprise.  And it’s clear that the recording industry is going a certain way and my tastes are going another way. It’s just that this was the moment when financially I could do it.”

Rivorecords feature young Argentine jazz artists focusing on a repertoire of American standards. The albums are impeccably produced, from the recording (done in the old, one-day style), to the sober, elegant packaging. (According to LoPrete, the look is a tribute to classic labels such as Blue Note, Riverside, and Pacific Jazz.)

“We decided to go in that direction [for repertoire] because I love standards,” wrote LoPrete. “For me, it was going back to the roots, if you will, and there are many [standards] that have not been recorded ad infinitum, but have beautiful melodies.” As for the one-day recording approach, he writes that it wasn’t as much due to budget considerations but as  “to maintaining a certain freshness in the performances. There is not one punched-in note in those recordings. It was an approach we discussed with the musicians and we all agreed it was the way to go — even if we had to live with some less-than-perfect notes here and there.”

There is no distribution set yet in the United States for Rivorecords, and the label doesn’t yet have a web page. “I  know we need it,” wrote LoPrete. “We’re a bit behind on all that side  of the project.”  But the recordings are available on eBay (click below on the artist’s name) or by contacting the label directly at rivorecords@gmail.com

The first releases are:

 

- A Child Is Born.  Saxophonist Carlos Lastra’s quartet , including versions of Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes,” and Thad Jones’s ”A Child Is Born.”

 

 

- What’s New?  Trumpeter Mariano Loiacono plays Billy Strayhorn’s “Johnny Come Lately,” Nat Adderley’s “Work Song, Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart.”

 

 

- Our DelightPianist Paula Shocron leading her trio in Tadd Dameron’s title track, and “Soultrane,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “One Morning in May,” and Duke Ellington’s “Melancholia.”

 

 


Live Jazz: Jane Monheit at Catalina Bar & Grill

December 28, 2011

By Don Heckman

Okay, let me get right to the point up front.  Jane Monheit’s performance at Catalina Bar & Grill Tuesday night produced some of the most memorable music of this or any other year.  And I can think of no better holiday present – to loved ones or oneself – than spending a couple of hours in the presence of this extraordinary artist before she wraps up her weeklong run Sunday night.

New Year’s Eve would be an especially celebratory time to do it (if it’s still possible to make a reservation).  But Monheit will be every bit as delightful on the other nights of this week, as well – from tonight through Sunday.

That said, why am I making such a wide open recommendation?

The answer goes back to 2000, when I reviewed Never Never Land, Monheit’s first recording, in the L.A. Times.  In the first sentence, I wrote “OK, the name isn’t familiar, but here’s a flat-out guarantee that it will be within the year.”

Not to brag, but I was right.  And Monheit, who was 22 at the time, has been on a continuing upward slope ever since.  I’ve heard and written about her many times since then, always favorably, always in admiration of her capacity to make the most of her superb natural skills.

From the very beginning – as early as her 2nd place finish in the 1998 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Compeition – Monheit’s fundamental qualities were firmly in place.  A voice that moved easily from tiny, bell-like head tones to a broad deeply affecting contralto; perfect pitch; remarkably mature interpretive insights; a gift for melodic variation; and a buoyant sense of swing.  Add to that a stage presence blossoming with charm, grace, humor and sensuality.

All of which were present in abundance on Tuesday night, in a set that was lovingly supported by long time musical companions Michael Kanan on piano (and the author of many of the arrangements), bassist Neal Miner and drummer (and husband) Rick Montalbano.

The program cruised from one highlight to another.  An ear-caressing rendering of “Moonlight In Vermont.”  A jaunty romp through “I Won’t Dance,” a song she recorded, with sexy, musically whimsical results, with Michael Bublé.  A stunning take on Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time.”  She soared through a Portuguese version of Tom Jobim’s high flying “Samba Do Aviao” and found emotional linkages between songs by Bill Evans and Ivan Lins.

Monheit’s intimate, deeply touching “Over the Rainbow” placed her version among the definitive interpretations by Judy Garland and Eva Cassidy.  And, on “Twisted,” as well as several other tunes, she casually displayed her jaunty ease with scatting and vocalese.

There was a time when some observers admired Monheit as a singer, while questioning whether the word “jazz” actually belonged before that description.  Those days are long gone.  As Tuesday night’s performance made clear, she is indeed a jazz singer, one of the world’s finest.  But it’s also correct to say that she is simply a great singer, as well, regardless of the appellation.  A great singer who should be heard at every opportunity.

Which brings me back to my opening sentence. Jane Monheit and her gifted players will be at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday.  Don’t miss them.


Picks of the Week: Dec. 27 – Jan. 1

December 26, 2011

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Jane Monheit

- Dec. 27 – Jan 1.  (Tues. through Sunday)  Jane Monheit.  The beautiful Monheit gets an early start, ramping up all week to the big Saturday night New Year’s celebration.  And what better way to bring in 2012 than by hearing her velvet voice and gentle swing delivering “Auld Lang Syne.”  Catalina Bar & Grill.    (323) 466-2210.

- Dec. 28. (Wed.)  Joe Bagg Organ Trio.  Bagg’s unique approach to the B-3, which happily avoids most of the predictable repetitions often heard from the instrument, makes his gigs especially appealing musical events.  He’s backed by Steve Cotter, bass and Ryan Doyle, drums.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.    (310) 474-9400.

- Dec. 28. (Wed.)  Gerald Clayton Trio. Pianist Clayton, blessed with musically rich genes (his Dad is bassist/composer/bandleader John Clayton, his uncle alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton) has thoroughly established himself as one of the most important new jazz arrivals of the past few years.  Steamers.   (714) 871-8800.

Luciana Souza

- Dec. 29. (Thurs.)  Luciana Souza.  Brazil’s Souza brings far-ranging musicality to the jazz vocal art, adept in the music of her native land, well-versed in jazz and contemporary classical music, always a pleasure to hear because of her quest to explore fascinating creative territories.  She’ll be well-aided toward that goal by guitarist Larry Koonse and bassist David PiltchBlue Whale.    (213) 620-0908.

- Dec. 29. (Turs.)  Woody Allen & His New Orleans Jazz Band.  Yes, the filmmaker/comedian really does play the clarinet, and does it well via a deep understanding of the essential elements of New Orleans music in general, and the New Orleans clarinet style in particular.  Royce Hall.  (310) 825-2101.

- Dec. 29. (Thurs.)  Billy Mitchell & Friends.  Pianist and all-around entertaining jazz artist Mitchell is featured at In-House Music’s early New Year’s Eve party, complete with cocktails, party hats, streamers, dancing and more.  With Dr. Bobby Rodriguez, trumpet, Rob Kyle, saxophone, Tomas Gargano, bass, Frank Wilson, drums.  LAX Jazz Club at the Crowne Plaza LAX.  Information: In-House Music.   (310) 216-5861.

NEW YEAR’S EVE

Billy Childs

- Dec. 20 & 31. (Fri. & Sat.)  Billy Childs Quartet.  The live performance by pianist Child’s musically compelling quartet — with Childs’ exploratory, ever searching piano playing in company with the saxophones of Bob Sheppard, the bass of Tim Lefebvre and the drums of Gary Novak — will also be delivered over FM radio via a live broadcast on NPR.  Blue Whale.   (213) 620-0908.

- Dec. 31. (Sat.) Brazilian New Year’s Eve Celebration.  Here’s a spectacular new way to celebrate the arrival of 2012, aboard the historic ocean liner, The Queen Mary. Rio’s Marcos Ariel, his keyboards and his Quartet will cover the full range of Carioca music — from samba to bossa nova to chorinho.  The samba dancers of Joany’s Samba Show will display the latest dance moves, and DJ Chris Brasil will keep the beat alive.  At midnight, 2012 will come in amid a spectacular fireworks show.  Rio de Janeiro at the Queen Mary.  (818) 566-1111.

- Dec. 31. (Sat.)  Sherry Williams.  The smooth sounding voice, effortless swing and artful interpretive skills of Williams still don’t receive the full attention they deserve.  She’ll be backed in this elegant celebratory night by the Pat Senatore QuartetVibrato Grill Jazz…etc.    (310) 474-9400.

- Dec, 31, (Sat.)  Frank Strazzeri. Pianist Strazzeri’s diverse career path has led from Dixieland jazz (with Al Hirt) through the bop years (with Charlie Ventura and Woody Herman), West Coast jazz (with Art Pepper, Chet Baker and more) and still swinging into the present.  This time out, he’ll be leading his stellar Legacy Group, with George Harper, tenor saxophone, Steve Johnson, trombone, Jeff Littleton, bass and Kenny Elliott, drums.   JAX Bar & Grill.    (818) 500-1604.

- Dec. 31. (Sat.)  Jane Monheit.  New Years Eve celebration.  See above.  Catalina Bar & Grill.    (323) 466-2210.

Pink Martini

- Dec. 31. (Sat.) New Year’s Eve with Pink Martini.  The ultimate cabaret act, Pink Martini – mixing their originals with such camp-edged classics as “Amado Mio” from the film Gilda — find common ground between French cabaret, jazz, Latin dance music, Brazilian samba and a lot more.  They’ll bring in the New Year with a memorable collection of songs. Disney Hall.   (323) 650-2000.

- Dec. 31. (Sat.)  Chris Williams Sextet.  Moving freely across mainstream, Latin and bebop territory, Williams spices his vocals with a dramatic ability to find the essential meaning of a song.  Steamers.    (714) 871-8800.

San Francisco

- Dec. 29 – 31. (Thurs. – Sat.)  Maceo Parker’s New Year’s Party. Alto saxophonist Parker has been a definitive voice of funk and soul since his prominent visibility with James Brown and Parliament Funkadelic.  And he’s still going strong. Yoshi’s San Francisco.    (415) 655-5600.

Chicago

Roy Hargrove

- Dec. 27 – Jan. 1.  (Tues. – Sun.)  Roy Hargrove Quintet. Grammy winning trumpeter Roy Hargrove has thoroughly established himself – at 42 – as one of the jazz world’s most versatile artists, moving compellingly across jazz and pop styles, from small groups to his own big band.  Jazz Showcase.    (312) 360-0234.

Washington, D.C.

- Dec. 28 – 31. (Wed. – Sat.)  Monty Alexander.  Alexander’s articulate jazz skills made him one of the most admired post-Oscar Peterson, bebop-driven pianists.  But more than that, he’s enhanced those skills with fascinating inner tinges of the sounds and rhythms of his native Jamaica.   Blues Alley.  (202) 337-4141.

New York

Wynton Marsalis

- Dec. 27 – Jan. 1. (Tues. – Sun.)  Wynton Marsalis: ”The Music of Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver.”  Few contemporary jazz artists understand – or even care to understand – the compelling musical delights of the music of Morton as well as Wynton Marsalis does.  And in addition to authenticity, Marsalis brings joyful, timeless swing to his memorable performances of works from these iconic jazz figures.  Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.    (212) 258-9800.

- Dec. 27 – Jan. 1. (Tues. – Sun.)  The Bad Plus.  The trio of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King continue to carry the torch for ever-evolving new views of the classic piano jazz trio.  Village Vanguard. l  (212) 255-4037.

- Dec. 27 – Jan. 1. (Tues. – Sun.)  Chris Botti.  An epic three week run — with two shows every evening — wraps up with a climactic New Year’s weekend for trumpeter Botti and his all-star collection of players.  Enhancing the music — the far-ranging versatility of singer Lisa Fischer.  Tickets may be hard, even impossible to get.  But it’s worth the effort to hear the best-selling American jazz instrumental artist in action.  The Blue Note.  (212) 475-8592.

Milan

- Dec. 27 – Dec. 31. (Tues. – Sat.)  The Harlem Gospel Choir. The 40-voice choir has established itself over the past 2 ½ decades, in performances around the world, for their expressive interpretations of the classic gospel repertoire. The Blue Note Milano.  02.69.01.68.88.

Tokyo

- Dec. 29 – 31. Thurs. – Sat.)  Fourplay.  The Fourplay quartet, often identified in the contemporary, even the smooth jazz, arena has always nonetheless maintained a solid connection with mainstream jazz roots.  And the addition of guitarist Chuck Loeb to the original trio of keyboardist Bob James, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason has further enhanced Fourplay’s musical solidity.  The Blue Note Tokyo.   03.5485.0088.

Billy Childs and Wynton Marsalis photos by Tony Gieske


The Holidays 2011

December 23, 2011

A Christmas Jazz Tale

by Don Heckman

‘Twas the night before Christmas and the gig was running late;
No sugar plums, no candy canes, just another overtime club date,
Holidays are work days in a jazz musician’s life,
A chance to make some extra bucks to take home to the wife.

Chanukah’s underway, Kwaanza starts tomorrow,
The Ramadan fast just ended,  and I’ll forget the others to my sorrow.
If you want to make a living in the music world these days,
You’d better learn to celebrate in many different ways.

The clock slowly turned toward the midnight hour,
As we played a jazzed up version of the “Waltz of the Flowers.”
We labored on, “White Christmas,” “Frosty” and “Silent Night”;
And I wondered if we’d still be jamming “My Favorite Things” at first light.

But we finally got lucky, as the leader kicked off the last medley.
The singer mauled “The Christmas Song,” a version Mel would have found deadly,
We did the “Jingle Bell Mambo” and the “Drummer Boy Bossa Nova,”
And wrapped it all up, with a rock “Hallelujah” coda.

I packed my horn, gave the guys my best wishes and headed into the night.
The streets were dark and quiet, the stores closed up tight.
Not that it would have mattered, since the gig barely paid the rent,
And whatever I could afford for presents had already been spent.

I walked through the falling snow, filled with memories of Christmas past,
Of marching bands and Christmas parades, of lighted trees and times too good to last.
And I wondered if my kids, when adulthood beckons,
Would remember their holidays with the same sweet affection.

My footsteps led me home to a house warm and cozy,
Where my wife and my children lay innocently dozing.
So I sat for a while in the late night still,
Watching the snow fall gently on the hill.

When I suddenly heard a familiar sound in the distance,
A rhythm section swinging with hard driving persistence.
But this one was strange, something I’d never heard before,
A brisk and spirited clatter I can only describe as hoof beats galore.

Then a new sound, one both familiar yet odd,
Called out through the snowflakes, like a leader commanding a squad.
“On Trane! On Dizzy! On Monk! On Duke!
On Sonny! On Bird! On Miles! On Klook!”

The next thing I heard was just as amazing,
A set of riffs, hard-swinging and blazing,
Played on an instrument that was new to me,
The sting of a trumpet, the silk of a sax, the tone of a bone, all blended with glee.

I ran to the window to see what was coming,
And was met with a sight incredibly stunning,
What looked like a bright red ’57 Chevy,
Pulled through the sky by eight reindeer in a bevy.

They landed in my yard and the driver leaped out;
Grabbing a pack from the back he quickly turned about.
I blinked my eyes at this strange apparition,
His cheeks like Dizzy, his smile like Pops, as natty as Miles, a man on a mission.

“Call me Father Jazz,” he said as he came through the door, “musicians are my specialty.
I’ll even make a stop tonight with a little something for Kenny G.”
Then, opening his pack, he lightly danced to our tree,
Placing presents beneath it, ever so gently.

“There’s a drum set for Alex,” he said, “that kid has great time.
And a guitar for Allegra, ’cause the songs she writes are so fine.
And the books and the wristwatch you wanted for your wife,
That you couldn’t afford, living a jazz musician’s life.”

This is way too weird, I thought, it must be a dream;
Something like this is too good to be what it seems.
“Oh, it’s the real deal,” said Father Jazz, with a riff-like snap of his fingers.
“You’re on my list of serious jazz swingers.”

Moving to the doorway he turned back for a final review:
“And if you’re wondering why no box has been left for you,
It’s because your present has already been given.
You know what it is? It’s the spirit that makes your imagination so driven.”

“Musicians like you know that the gift of music is the gift of love.
It’s a gift that can only have come from above.
And those non-jazz Beatles had it right, for all our sakes,
When they said, ‘The love you take is equal to the love you make’.”

He bounded lightly through the snow to his flying red Chevy,
Blew a celestial riff on his amazing horn — so heavy!
And urged his team forward with a rallying command,
“On Dizzy! On Bird! On Miles! On Trane!”

As his eager steeds rose into the winter sky,
Father Jazz called out one last stirring cry.
Looking down with a radiant smile and a farewell wave:
“Stay cool, Bro’ and keep the music playing.”


Here, There & Everywhere: Sing! Sing! Sing!

December 23, 2011

By Don Heckman

Christmas caroling was a regular seasonal activity in my young life.  Growing up in an Eastern Pennsylvania rust belt city, singing carols while slip-sliding our way across icy sidewalks was as necessary to the holiday as going to Mass on Christmas eve.  In a way, it was an equally necessary counter to the darker side of what we’d done on Halloween, when enacting tricks was a lot more common than  asking for treats.

All of which went through my mind last night when Faith and I took our lovely ten year old granddaughter, Maia, to the Victorian Mansion for “Candlelight Carols” by Judy Wolman, Howard Lewis and “Sing! Sing! Sing!”  And one couldn’t have asked for a more delightfully atmospheric setting to join in a holiday music singalong than the elegant wood-paneled room that jazz fans will recall as the former site of the much-missed jazz club, “The Vic.”

At the beginning, Wolman reminded me that she, Lewis and their group of singers had been doing these holiday celebrations for 20 years.  Not only that, of course, but also their continuing programs of participatory jaunts through the rich musical landscape of the Great American Songbook.  (Programs devoted to Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael and others are already scheduled for 2012.)

The “Candlelight Carols” program characteristically reached out to embrace the Songbook – with selections from Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Rodgers & Hammerstein, etc. — as well as a collection of traditional carols.  And the format was as comfortable and inviting as a holiday evening in a close friend’s living room.

Lewis introduced each number with some fascinating background, often including nuggets of insight into the song, as well as its creators.  Then Wolman — a superb piano accompanist, backed by Chris Conner’s bass, Dick Weller’s drums and some warm melody-making from harmonica player Ron Kalina – led the way into the song.

Maia

The audience, using lyric sheets provided by Wolman, sang along enthusiastically, sometimes even more than that.  And our granddaughter, Maia, not especially familiar with all the standards, nonetheless applied her already burgeoning musicality to every song, singing, smiling, enjoying every minute of this engaging new experience.

And what a collection of songs it was: “It’s Beginning To Look Like Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “My Favorite Things,” “White Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”  As well as “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” “The First Noel” and much, much more.

Between the singalong segments, individual singers from the Sing! Sing! Sing! vocal ensemble – Chuck Marso, Anita Royal, Jackie Manfredi and Ruth Davis – soloed.  And songwriter Jim Mann presented a brand new Christmas song, “Cheers! Cheers! Cheers!”

The sidewalks weren’t icy, and there was no snow in the forecast as we left the Victorian.  But the wind was blowing, and, as we walked hand in hand to our car, the words to one of the evening’s songs – with their perfect holiday sentiments — kept coming to mind.

           “The wind is blowing

           But I can weather the storm

            What do I care how much it may storm?

            I’ve got my love to keep me warm.”


Live Jazz: John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey at Disney Hall

December 21, 2011

By Don Heckman

Who would have thought that Tuesday night’s Disney Hall performance by jazz guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli would wind up in a singalong with the entire audience joining in on “The Twelve Days of Christmas?”

The answer is anyone who’s ever seen Pizzarelli, his trio, and his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, in action.  Together, they have created some of the jazz world’s most consistently engaging entertainments.  Like Louis Armstrong, Dave Frishberg, Dizzy Gillespie and Mose Allison, among others, they’ve done so in an irresistibly swinging  jazz setting.  As they did on Tuesday.

Their set was especially enlivened by the blending of seemingly dissimilar songs into lyrically pointed combinations.  Not quite medleys, they were more like a contrapuntal tossing back and forth of words and music.  The pairing of Irving Berlin’s “The Best Things Happen When You Dance” and Bobby Troup’s “Nice Girls Don’t Stay For Breakfast,” for example, was a perfect opportunity for Pizzarelli to play the seducing male to Molaskey’s reluctant female.  On another blend, Molaskey accurately noted the co-dependency aspects of the lyrics to “I Want To Be Happy” (“But I can’t be happy, until you’re happy, too”), while Pizzarelli responded casually with “Sometimes I’m Happy.”

And there were other blends, equally pointed in their own ways: Stephen Sondheim’s “Buddy’s Eyes” with Billy Joel’s “Rosalinda”; Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Aguas de Marco.”

Backed by the solid support of pianist Larry Fuller (whose soloing was one of the evening’s musical highlights), bassist (and brother) Martin Pizzarelli and drummer Tony Tedesco, the vocal excursions were balanced by plenty of opportunities for Pizzarelli’s high flying guitar lines to solo, often in unison with his vocal scatting – notably so on “Sleigh Ride.”  Molaskey, a Broadway star in her own right, applied her warm and supple voice to a touching reading of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” and Pizzarelli touched on the real meaning of the holiday with an equally moving “Count Your Blessings.”

But back to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  It almost seemed like another of his throwaway lines when Pizzarelli proposed a singalong of the old classic, assigning the melody of one of the days to each of the many individual audience areas.  And there was faltering along the way, especially from some of the smaller sections.  But, unexpectedly, it all came together – with the upper center section offering a near-professional version of “Five golden rings” – and the others responding with, at the very least, plenty of enthusiasm.

As I suggested above, it wasn’t exactly what one expected at a jazz concert.  But it was delightful, nonetheless.  As was the balance of this utterly enjoyable evening. Call it a musical Christmas present from the Pizzarellis – a Christmas present to remember.

Photo courtesy of the Pizzarellis.


Ballet: The San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker”

December 21, 2011

By Jane Rosenberg

Last Wednesday my twenty-three-year-old daughter surprised me with matinee tickets to the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker, on view through December 27 at the War Memorial Opera House. Premiering in 2004 and choreographed by Helgi Tomasson, the company’s artistic director (and a famous alumni of New York City Ballet), this production offers as many delights as the renowned Balanchine version.  Forgoing the usual nineteenth century German setting, we find ourselves in San Francisco in the year of the Panama Pacific International Exposition.  Everything, from the costumes to the sets to the characters inhabiting the comfortable San Francisco town house of Act One, is rendered with such intelligence and taste that the transformation to early twentieth century America seems wholly believable and natural.

From the moment the overture of Tchaikovsky’s glorious score began, played with Christmas spirit by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, we were plunged into the life and times of 1915 San Francisco.  A policeman, a flower seller, a delivery man, a nanny with a pram, a pair of nuns all toddled across the stage against a backdrop of beautifully realized middle class townhouses, created by scenic designer, Michael Yeargan.  Herr Drosselmeyer, the toymaker, has left his shop carrying a large package and joined the parade going by, to finally enter the bustling party inside the Stahlbaum house.

When the dancing began in Act One of this delightful production, we knew we were in for two hours of ballet performed at the highest level.  A lovely young dancer, Fiona Zhong, inhabited Clara, here recast as a slightly older teenager, nearing womanhood.  Val Caniparoli as a dignified Drosselmeyer was captivating in his role as the magical toymaker, creator of wonders. And the wonders began when a life size Harlequin tumbled out of a giant box.  Among the most memorable choreography of the ballet, this doll, as danced by Francisco Mungamba, stretched and slid across the floor in a costume of brilliant yellows, part rubber Gumby, part ragdoll.  As the grandfather, Sebastian Vinet was an intoxicated delight, and as his regal wife, Patricia Keleher completed the pairing.

Nowhere in this production was the excitement more palpable than after the guests departed, and Clara was left to witness the transformation of her living room into a bewitched battleground.  The tree, the gifts, the furniture grew as Clara dashed to and fro.  No sleepy witness, Clara took an active part in the battle that followed.

Organized, fanciful, and daring all at once, this battle of mice and men took on an almost heroic glow.  No slipper would do here to distract the Mouse King from stabbing the Nutcracker.  Instead, Clara marshaled a regiment to carry in a giant mousetrap.  With a snap, the King was caught, allowing the Nutcracker to thrust his sword and claim the day.

Drosselmeyer then reappeared and transformed the Nutcracker, at Clara’s behest, into a Prince, danced expressively by Jaime Garcia Castilla.  Clara and her prince shared a brief pas de deux before their surroundings morphed into the Land of Snow.  I found myself missing the excitement of Clara journeying out into the snowy night, but all was well with the arrival of the Snow Queen, danced with crystalline delicacy by Wan Ting Zhao and her King, Daniel Deivison. Unfortunately, the live children’s chorus, which normally adds such exuberance to the scene was not heard at this matinee. With Tomasson’s satisfyingly classical choreography, however, we reveled in the sheer beauty of line and pattern of the dancing snowflakes.

The second act found Clara and her prince not in the Land of Sweets, but in a Crystal Palace – a reflection of the 1915 exhibition.  Instead of the usual candy infused greeting, Clara was met by ladybugs, dragonflies, and butterflies.  Though the set was modest, with each divertissement, the lighting, designed by James Ingalls, changed color; and stylized objects appeared: fans, a tent, an Aladdin’s lamp, Russian Easter eggs, even a dancing dragon. The effect was charming.  The dancing was charming as well: notably the French showgirls with twirling ribbons, the Russian dancers, Benjamin Stewart, Daniel Baker, and Francisco Mungamba (choreographed by Anatole Vilzak in 1986), and Madame du Cirque complete with little clowns and a dancing bear.  The only disappointment was the Arabian Dance.  Though the arrival of Arabian Coffee in an Aladdin’s Lamp carried by two attendants was inspired, the choreography failed to reflect the sensuousness of Tchaikovsky’s score.

The Waltz of the Flowers was beautiful for its changing patterns, but lacked an intensity to match the score.  The Sugar Plum Fairy of Courtney Elizabeth, her role curtailed in this production, danced majestically.  In a surprising twist, Sugar Plum no longer danced the grand pas de deux with her cavalier.  Instead, the fairy escorted young Clara into a magical cabinet, only to disappear and reappear as her adult self.  The adult Clara danced with the Nutcracker Prince, lending emotional power and poignancy to the pas de deux. It is the dream of adulthood as envisioned by a child, and the effect was poetic in concept and execution. Frances Chung was a glowing Clara, and Castilla matched her in grace and power.

The matinee audience, comprised largely of mothers with their velveted and beribboned little daughters, sat for two glorious hours, wholly transported to a fairy tale world.  So complete was the magic that my grown daughter, a writer and baker living in San Francisco, turned to me and, half in jest, said, “I want to be a ballerina when I grow up.”  Me too.

Illustration ©1985 by Jane Rosenberg.  Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Ballet.

Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets and SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children. 


Jazz With an Accent: CDs by Rudresh Mahanthappa; Dino Saluzzi, Anja Lechner & Felix Saluzzi. And Further Thoughts

December 20, 2011

By Fernando Gonzalez

Catching up with a pair of worthy, recent releases: Indian fusion and Argentine bandoneones.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Samdhi (ACT)

Indian-American saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has been methodically building his music out of blending South Indian Carnatic musical elements and contemporary jazz. In Samdhi, he takes it all a step further as he brings technology into the mix. The results are both substantive and fun. Ably supported by former M-Base guitarist Dave Gilmore; Rich Brown, on electric bass; Damion Reid, drums, and South Indian percussionist “Anand” Anantha Krishnan on mridangam (a two-headed drum) and kanjira (frame drum), Mahanthappa sets out a three way dialogue between jazz and South Indian music and electronics full of unexpected turns.

Mahanthappa is an intense player – there is a distinct force in his tone, dry and edgy, to the fast, relentless, baroque lines he unfurls at dizzying speed. But in Samdhi, he paces that intensity as if probing the edges of the music.  The opening “Parakram #1,” with Mahanthappa’s slow moving, mournful alto playing over a discreet cloud of synth strings in the background improbably suggests a Nordic ECM landscape in grays  –  which is exploded by the ferocious urgency of the following track, “Killer,” in which the band negotiates hairpin turns at a breathtaking speed. (Mahanthappa also for good measure runs his alto through a harmonizer.) Then again on “Parakram #2,” the sax plays over a loop of sax and electronic drums. But in sharp contrast, “Breakfastlunchanddinner,” which starts out as a stop-time conversation between sax, guitar and drums, becomes an almost conventional funk piece.

Mahanthappa has spoken in interviews about how his early influences were not straight ahead jazz but rather The Brecker Brothers, Yellowjackets and (1980s) Miles Davis. All is in play here – cutting edge fusion, funk grooves, post bop phrasing, jazz rock, South Indian rhythmic patterns, electronica and more. In lesser hands, this would be little more than pastiche. In Mahanthappa’s, the sum is greater than the parts. Jazz with an accent indeed.

Dino Saluzzi / Anja Lechner / Felix Saluzzi

Navidad de Los Andes (ECM)

Bandoneonist and composer Dino Saluzzi, cellist Anja Lechner, and saxophonist and clarinetist Felix Saluzzi, Dino’s younger brother, collaborated most recently in Dino Saluzzi’s orchestral El Encuentro (ECM) in 2009. But in this soulful deceptively simple sounding Navidad de Los Andes, the three work at suggesting, as much as enunciating, the possibilities in the music.

The bandoneón is a melancholy-sounding button squeezebox invented in Germany as a portable, poor man´s harmonium. It’s best known for its use in tango. Born in rural Salta in Argentina´s Northwest not in urban (and urbane) Buenos Aires, the capital of tango, Saluzzi has always had a distinctly personal approach to the instrument. Here he seems to nod as often to tango as to his own roots in folk music and, at times, even the bandoneón´s original religious function (listen to the evocative “Ronda de niños en la montaña”). Three of the tracks draw from the tango repertoire ( “Recuerdos de Bohemia,” “Soledad,” and “Variaciones sobre una melodia popular de José L. Padula”) while Saluzzi also celebrates the music of Argentina’s countryside by revisiting older pieces of his such as “Son Qo’ñati,” and “Gabriel Kondor.”

These are three superior musicians, smartly listening to each other and to the sounds and the silences between them, letting the pieces reveal themselves.  The music in Navidad de Los Andes emanates from the recording like a perfume.

* * * * *

Further Thoughts: The Jazz Tweaker.

In a piece titled “The Tweaker” in The New Yorker issue of Nov 14, writer Malcolm Gladwell reviews Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.

Gladwell takes an intriguing tack. He starts by asking why the industrial revolution started in England and not, say, France or Germany — and he cites the explanation of a couple of economists. The answer: Britain had “tweakers.”

These were “…resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them, refined and perfected them, and made them work.”

“Such men … provided the ‘micro inventions necessary to make the macro inventions highly productive and remunerative.”

Jobs “borrowed,” to use Gladwell’s term, from the work of engineers at Xerox for his Macintosh, did not invent the portable digital music player or the smart phone.  But he did come up with improved versions in the iPod and the iPhone, and the idea for the iPad “came from an engineer at Microsoft.” By Issacson’s biography, Gladwell’s concludes, Jobs was more of a tweaker than the visionary and inventor celebrated in his eulogies.

Which brings us to Miles Davis.

From his beginnings in bop to his experiments in cool jazz and modal music to the electric fusion of the 70s, Davis had an uncanny feel for his time. (The long coda after his return in 1982 is a wholly different matter for another day.) And throughout his career, he surrounded himself with the best players for that moment, putting his imprint on the music, and the music-making, with such imagination and force as to make it his.

Davis wasn’t a distinguished composer. Put aside songs of disputed authorship and count his memorable pieces. In fact, he wasn’t actually the generator of some of the ideas behind the profound changes in music that he was given credit for. Rather he was, to put it in Gladwell’s terms, an exceptional tweaker, a ruthless, brilliant editor, both in the studio and on stage, when he prodded and cut on the fly, turning editing into a high-art improvisation.

Of course, none of this diminishes Miles’s contributions. It just places them, and our notions about creators and the creative process, under a different light.


Picks of the Week: Dec. 19 – 25

December 19, 2011

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

- Dec. 19. (Mon.)  The Klezmatics.  Somewhere between Eastern European Jewish music, ecstatic Middle Eastern sounds and the rhythmic lift and improvisations of jazz is the territory in which the Klezmatics practice their musically creative magic.  Disney Hall.

Jessica Molaskey and John Pizzarelli

- Dec. 20. (Tues.) Jessica Molaskey and John Pizzarelli A Swingin’ Christmas. One of the jazz world’s most engaging couples.  Individually and together, Molaskey and Pizzarelli bring a warm amiability, a sometimes wild sense of humor, and irresistible musicality to everything they do.   Disney Hall.

- Dec. 20. (Tues.)  The 6th Annual Broadway Christmas.  Once again, Upright Cabaret and Catalina’s celebrate the holiday with a stellar line up of Broadway stars singing a program of familiar favorites.  With Sam Harris, Lesli Margherita, Jake Simpson, Kelli Provart, Carla Renata, Arielle Jacobs and many more.  Catalina Bar & Grill.    (323) 466-2210.

- Dec. 22. (Thurs.)  Candlelight Carols.  If it’s the week before Christmas, it’s time to be a part of the annual Christmas carol singalong with pianist Judy Wolman and the Sing! Sing! Sing! Singers.  This year’s celebration takes place in the atmospheric, candle-lit setting of Santa Monica’s beautiful Victorian Mansion.  Sing! Sing! Sing!.

Nancy Sanchez

Dec. 23. (Fri.)  Nancy Sanchez.  Still young enough to be finding her way, jazz singer Sanchez is displaying all the signs of possessing a significant musical future.  Catch her now, so you can say you saw her when… Steamers.  (714) 871-8800.

- Dec. 24. (Sat.) The Tom Ranier Quartet. Ranier, always fascinating to hear, turns up the creative intensity in the company of trumpeter Steve Huffstetter, bassist Pat Senatore and drummer Dick WellerVibrato Grill Jazz…etc.  (310) 474-9400.

Seattle

- Dec. 22 – 23. (Thurs. & Fri.)  Tingstad and Rumbel.  An acoustic holiday celebration with the long-together duo of guitarist Eric Tingstad and oboeist Nancy Rumbel, performing seasonal songs in the warm and intimate acoustic style that has been heard on 19 albums since the mid-‘80s.  Jazz Alley.   (206) 441-9729.

New York

- Dec. 19 – Jan. 1, 2012. (Mon. – Mon.)  Chris Botti.  The hugely popular jazz trumpeter  continues his epic, three week-long string of  holiday performances, celebrating the season with two sets a night of memorable music, climaxing on the first night of the new year.  The Blue Note.   (212) 475-8592.

Freddy Cole

- Dec 20 – 24. (Tues. – Sat.)  Freddy Cole.  The appealing singing and piano playing of Cole, who turned 80 in October, has been having a much-deserved rush of popularity lately, as audiences have begun to appreciate that he is far more than the younger brother of Nat “King” Cole.  Birdland.    (212) 581-3080.

London

- Dec. 19 – 23 (Mon. – Fri.)  Ray Gelato and the Giants.  Saxophonist/singer/bandleader and all-around entertainer, Gelato’s performances recall the upbeat, delightfully engaging music of Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, Louis Prima and more.  The London Evening Standard, rightfully describes him as “arguably the only British jazz artist with a proper stage show.”  Ronnie Scott’s.   020 7439 0747.

Tokyo

- Dec. 21 – 23. (Wed. – Fri.)  The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.  One of the Southland’s great musical contributions to the world of big band jazz, the CHJO players bring their intriguing arrangements (mostly written by John Clayton) and irresistibly swinging ensemble playing to the jazz fans of Japan.  The Blue Note Tokyo.    03 5485 0088.


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